Alaska News

Quality education requires commitment, accountability

Some people say our state's public education system is in dire straits. Our performance in terms of student achievement, graduation, and dropout rates lags behind many other states and is dismal when compared to most of the world's leading nations.

While it's true that our public education system does have its shortcomings, it does no good only to lament what's wrong. Doing so weakens and divides us. We must focus on what we want and move our schools in that direction.

The Northwest Arctic Borough School District, where I am superintendent, has a history of low achievement and high staff turnover. It has struggled since its beginning to improve and perform at levels that are on a par with high-performing districts in our state.

Some blame our predicament on poverty. Some blame it on our teachers, administrators, the school board, parents, the local community, and even the ability of our children.

I don't buy any of that.

The truth is blame accomplishes nothing.

When we take an honest look at our district, we find some things that we do quite well and some things that leave substantial room for improvement.

Historically, the focus in our district, and I suspect in many districts, has been to fix this or fix that with the hope that everything will get better. We know firsthand that approach does not work. There are no silver bullets. Over the years, like many districts, we've purchased every curriculum, tool, or gizmo that was promoted as the next best thing, and none of them have solved our problems.

Producing better results requires informed decision-making, appropriate training, and levels of commitment, persistence, and accountability that until recently, we were unable to achieve or sustain.

We know that students living in poverty can achieve at high levels and succeed in school. There is ample research to document not only that it happens, but there are successful strategies we can employ.

Three years ago, when I was hired as superintendent, board members made it very clear that they wanted to take the district in a different direction. They no longer wanted the district focused on finger-pointing or just finding the minor problems and trying to fix those. They wanted the focus on success, and they wanted a plan to get us there.

We needed a robust plan with strong performance and accountability measures, a plan that addressed every function, program, and service in our district. We've been developing that plan, and while we still have far to go, we are already seeing some positive results.

Over the last 5 years, our overall student achievement based on the Standards Based Assessments taken by students in grades 3 through 10 has increased as follows: In 2003, 36 percent of our students were proficient in language arts; by 2008 that percentage had risen to 51 percent. During the same time frame on the same assessment, our math proficiency scores have risen from 32 percent to 51 percent.

Looking back to 1991, which is as far back as our test data goes, I see that the overall achievement level of students in our district was stuck at the 20 to 30 percentile range until 2003. Student achievement is on the rise in our school district.

How did we get here?

I've already mentioned the school board's powerful influence. But I need also to recognize the impact of No Child Left Behind. Whether we like NCLB or not, we know it has stimulated our school district by raising the bar on student achievement.

We are transitioning from a district that needed to be pushed to improve to a district that is pulling itself up by its own bootstraps. We know how to improve, and we are doing what it takes to make it happen.

Norman Eck, PhD., is superintendent of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District, which is headquartered in Kotzebue and serves 12 schools in 11 villages with 1850 students. He is Alaska's Superintendent of the Year.